Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in a Shakespeare adaptation with shooting in it
In a place calling itself Rome, general Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is both hero and villain – a legendary fighter who is blamed by the people for their current poverty. When he earns the new title of Coriolanus after a massive victory, he retires from the battlefield to become a politician and tries to gain the vote of the people.
Veteran actor Ralph Fiennes takes on his first directing job with this adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. And while Shakespeare adaptations are far from scarce, this version sets itself apart with a contemporary warzone setting and several scenes which wouldn’t be out of place in a Michael Bay film.
Fiennes also nabs the lead role, facing off against sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) in a series of pitched battles with many ballistics and even the odd explosion. These set pieces are decently mounted, if shot on shaky cam, and the visuals are suitably gritty.
Fiennes has, in updating the setting of the piece, also opted to retain the original lines and speech patterns of Shakespeare’s text. If it sounds incongruous, it certainly is, but it’s not as jarring as you might imagine. Careful editing keeps most of the changes succinct and sensical and there’s no doubting the Bard’s exchanges remain powerful more than five centuries later.
Retaining Shakespeare’s prose also gives Fiennes the chance to seriously let rip as Coriolanus, and you can’t help but imagine that was part of his reason for taking on directing duties. His major scenes wrestle the camera into close up, to better catch the invectives – and spittle – flying from his mouth in impressively bitter cadence. It’s strong stuff, put across with much force and an excellent command of emphasis and the nature of the text, and there’s no doubt that the intimacy of the movie form allows for a difference perspective on the action.
These moments work but some are less successful, like the expository asides featuring Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow. Unfolding like news reports and interviews, they comment on the events which are happening as Shakespeare’s minor characters and chorus might. But the iambic pentameter rings false here, especially if they are supposed to clarify what is happening in the main story, and the contributors looking mighty uncomfortable.
For his part, Fiennes has assembled a top tier cast for his directorial debut. Butler seems to be having some trouble with his Shakespeare and Jessica Chastain loses her accent from time to time but dependable players like Brain Cox and Vanessa Redgrave do great work. And Fiennes is a towering, and loud, screen presence. And his directorial style is just as strident, full of POV shots, aggressive editing and manly men shooting or stabbing things.
Coriolanus isn’t a subtle film but Shakespeare and shooting make for a reasonably diverting two hours and when the pacing flags you can always look forward to Fiennes shouting at you again.